By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
On October 12, 1998, at12:53 a.m., Matthew Shepard was pronounced dead at the trauma center of Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
For nearly a week, the story of a 21-year-old, gay college student abducted by two men, bound to a fence, beaten beyond recognition with a .357 handgun, and left to die in the freeze Wyoming night had gripped the nation. According to police reports, when Matthew Shepard was discovered, the only part of his face not covered with blood was where his tears had washed it away.
For the LGBTQ Community, the brutality of the robbery turned murder struck us to the core and our grief over Matthew’s death was nearly unbearable. He was more than one of us, we were him. As the target of hate fueled violence, we saw ourselves. It could have just as easily been us in Anytown, U.S.A.
His funeral became a moment of collective grief and gratitude for the life taken by hate. It was also a target for a despicable show of homophobia by repugnant Evangelical fundamentalists who picketed outside the church in Casper, Wyoming. In turn it brought out the best in humanity, when the overflow of mourners outside began singing “Amazing Grace” to drown out the hate speech being shouted.
Rev’d. Deacon Kenton J. Curtis shared his personal firsthand account in a post he wrote for theOUTfront in 2019, “Matthew Shepard – a Saint for our times”
Matthew Shepard would have been 46 now, and we can only imagine the husband, and father he’d have become. Instead, he is forever the 21-year-old kid with the impish grin in images indelibly etched in our minds.
In 1998, Matthew’s parents, Judy and Denis Shepard started the Matthew Shepard Foundation with this mission.
“The Matthew Shepard Foundation’s mission is to amplify the story of Matthew Shepard to inspire individuals, organizations, and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people. Through local, regional, and national outreach, we empower individuals to find their voice to create change and challenge communities to identify and address hate that lives within our schools, neighborhoods, and homes.
Our work is an extension of Matt’s passion to foster a more caring and just world. We share his story and embody his vigor for civil rights to change the hearts and minds of others to accept everyone as they are.”
View this post on Instagram
To support their work visit MatthewShepard.org
In November 1999 after Aaron McKinney was convicted of felony murder in the death of Matthew Shepard, the jury had to deliberate giving him the death penalty. Denis Shepard found the grace and compassion to make this statement at the sentencing hearing.
On October 22, 2009, President Obama signed Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act ten years after it had been introduced in Congress and blocked by Republicans numerous times and threatened with veto by President George W. Bush in 2007. Although it has not reduced hate crime violence, it has changed the way federal hate crime data is collected, reported and/or investigated.
Fear of desecration prevented the Shepards from finding a final resting place for their son for twenty years, nearly as long as his life. Even in death, Matthew Shepard had to be protected from another hate crime. His ashes were finally interred during a ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 2018. He shares this honor with other notable Americans including President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, and Anne Sullivan.
How quickly 25 years goes by.
And how quickly things have changed for the worse. In 2023, Matthew Shepard cannot be discussed in schools and books about his story are banned in states across the country because to anti-LGBTQ legislation passed by ultra-conservative Republicans and the efforts of Christian hate groups like “Moms for Liberty.” What’s more, hate crimes against the LGBTQ Community have dramatically increased in the five years since he was laid to rest.
If Matthew Shepard’s legacy 25 years later teaches us anything, it’s that we must be ever vigilant and keep fighting the forces of homophobia and hate which seek to destroy and erase us. It shows us that one person, one life, can have a dramatic impact and alter the course of our struggle. Most of all, that love, for ourselves and each other, is the most powerful force in sustaining us through tragedy and setbacks and inspiring us to keep moving forward.
“Matt has shown us the way, away from violence, hate and despair.
“And it is that love that has radiated out of the midst of this tragedy, love which empowers his parents to speak in passion rather than condemnation, love which inspired his friends to acts of prayer and witness, love which is more powerful than any voice of hate.”
– Rev. Canon Ann Kitch (Matthew’s cousin) at his funeral